Publication 2770

Wolfe C. (1994) Making contingency safe for liberalism: The pragmatics of epistemology in Rorty and Luhmann. New German Critique 61: 101–127. Fulltext at
Excerpt: What must immediately surprise any reader new to the discourses of systems theory or what is sometimes called “second-order cybernetics” is the rather systematic reliance of this new theoretical paradigm on the figure of vision and, more specifically, observation. That surprise might turn into discomfort if not alarm for readers in the humanities who cut their teeth on the critical genealogy of vision and the look which runs, in its modernist incarnation, from Freud’s discourse on vision in Civilization and Its Discontents through Sartre’s Being and Nothingness to Lacan’s seminars and finally to recent influential work in psychoanalysis and feminist film theory. With the possible exception of Michel Foucault, no recent intellectual has done more to call into question the trope of vision than America’s foremost pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty. From his ground-breaking early work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature onward, Rorty has argued that the figure of vision in the philosophical and critical tradition is indissolubly linked with representationalism and realism, where representationalism assumes that “making true’ and ‘representing’ are reciprocal relations: the nonlinguistic item which makes S true is the one represented by S, ” and realism maintains the “idea that inquiry is a matter of finding out the nature of something which lies outside the web of beliefs and desires, ” in which “the object of inquiry – what lies outside the organism – has a context of its own, a context which is privileged by virtue of being the object’s rather than the inquirer’s.” Instead, Rorty argues, we should reduce this desire for objectivity to a search for “solidarity” and embrace a philo-sophical holism of the sort found in Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, which holds that “words take their meanings from other words rather than by virtue of their representative character” and “transparency to the real.” Hence, Rorty rejects the representationalist position and its privileged figure, and argues instead that “Our only usable notion of ‘objectivity’ is ‘agreement’ rather than mirroring."

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